(photo: Wild Fennel Seed (Semi di Finocchietto Selvatico) from Sicilia; you can use the seed as is or crush it via a mortar and pestle for savory and sweet dishes)
Wild fennel, or Finocchietto Selvatico, can be found throughout most parts of southern Italy and is part of the staple diet for many Calabrians, Sicilians, etc. My father tells romantic stories of foraging for wild fennel in the Calabrian countryside just southeast of Pellegrina. Wild fennel, unlike domesticated fennel, doesn’t contain a white bulb and is prized mostly for the fronds it produces in the springtime along with the edible seeds. Wild fennel fronds can be chopped and used in minestra or as a flavoring agent for a pasta dish made with pork sausage, for example.
Fennel seeds are collected from the yellow fennel head which, when fade into a light brown color, begin to form seeds in tight clusters. My father’s tip on collecting seeds at the appropriate time includes waiting for the seeds to form a light stripe on them prior to harvesting, thereafter he cuts of the whole head of the plant and stores them in a dry area. Finally, he collects the seeds and stores them in a clean jar.
(photo: courtesy of user gcrspot on Flickr; seeds still on plant)
(photo: close up of Wild Fennel Seed (Semi di Finocchietto Selvatico) from Sicilia)
(photo: Wild Fennel Seed (Semi di Finocchietto Selvatico) from Sicilia from the company Gangi Dante, Gli Aromi della Sicilia)
I like crushing (with a mortar and pestle) fennel seeds and using the spice with roasted potatoes and yams, as a rub on pork or chicken, and even adding a bit to my standard salad dressing. Fennel seeds can be manipulated in the same fashion as coriander or caraway seeds and can be consumed whole. Fennel seeds have an intense woodsy, deep, yet subtly sweet flavor profile which, in turn, can also be used in sweet recipes.
The wild fennel seeds we’ve been using come from Sicilia and a company called Gangi Dante, Gli Aromi della Sicilia. The Gangi family operate an 80 acre organic farm in Resuttano, situated almost directly in the middle of Sicily, were they also produce excellent dried oregano (click here for a video of dried oregano being extracted from dried plants)